Theodore Roosevelt National Park

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Cliffs at Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Cliffs at Theodore Roosevelt National Park (Photodisc/Getty)

About 60 million years ago, streams carried eroded materials eastward from the young Rocky Mountains and deposited them on a vast lowland—today's Great Plains. During the warm, rainy periods that followed, dense vegetation grew, fell into swampy areas, and was later buried by new layers of sediments. Eventually this plant material turned into lignite coal. Some plantlife became petrified; today considerable amounts of petrified wood are exposed in the badlands. Bentonite, the blue-gray layer of clay, may be traced to ash from ancient volcanoes far to the west. But even as sediments were being deposited, streams were starting to cut down through the soft strata, sculpting the infinite variety of buttes, tablelands, and valleys that make up the badlands we know today.

Though at first glance this landscape appears inhospitable and barren, it is home to a great variety of creatures and plants. Rainfall, scanty though it is, nourishes the grasses that cover the land. And when the wildflowers bloom in bright profusion, they add their vibrant colors to the reds, browns, and greens of earth and grass. At home here, too, are more than 200 species of birds, many of which are songbirds. We thrill to hear their songs today as much as Roosevelt did. "One of our sweetest, loudest songsters," he wrote, "is the meadowlark. The Plains air seems to give it a voice and it will perch on top of a bush or tree and sing for hours in rich bubbling tones."

Both mule deer and whitetail deer inhabit the park. The whitetails prefer the river woodlands, and the mule deer like the more broken country and the uplands. Prairie dogs, historically a staple food source for many predators, live in towns in the grasslands. Through careful management some animals that nearly became extinct are once again living here. Bison and elk, for example, were reintroduced in 1956 and 1985, respectively. Keep your eyes open; there is a lot to see here!

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 18 Mar 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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